“Do you ever get scared of being mediocre?” a friend asked me as she tried on a pair of ostentatious sunglasses in a shop mirror.
I laughed. “Look at me, I’ve spent my life being terrified of being mediocre!” I thought no more about it for another ten years.
Recent revelations about myself as a teacher and as a woman, however, have brought the kind of peace of mind that yoga never could but I am battling with myself as it contradicts everything I tell children to believe about themselves every day.
I am not special.
I am mediocre.
Coming to terms with my own mediocrity has liberated me in a personal, professional and creative capacity. Whose standards am I trying to live up to now? My own and I am setting the bar pretty low these days so I am never disappointed!
Being told you’re a genius from the age of 4 does things to an unhappy, grieving child who already feels like they don’t fit in anywhere, especially their own family. Being sent to an academically selective school at the age of 11 with the encouragement, “you’re going to be a doctor” does things to a desperately unhappy child who really doesn’t fit in, especially in a school full of overachieving, ruddy-faced hockey players. As soon as I could write my name, I was told that I was destined for greatness (or, at the very least, I would be the first person in my family to go to university). There was nothing I couldn’t do in the eyes of my family and teachers.
Then I went to secondary school. It has only been since becoming a teacher myself with a focus on Carol Dweck’s teachings on fixed and growth mind-sets that I have realised that my complete and utter rejection of and failure at secondary education was because of an intense fear of failure itself. At least my failures were on my terms and no one else’s.
So, I was no longer special because I was smart. I would never be special for being pretty (I was informed in a very matter of fact way by my mother that I was the ‘witty sister’). I could, however, make myself special with the way I dressed and painted my face. It became a form of control as I got older; a mask I could hide behind. I knew that if people could see me and hear me then I knew I existed
My hair went through every shade of pink, red and purple. It went from platinum to black then back to platinum. Twenty years down the line, I cringe at the cultural appropriation of wearing a bindi and henna and my short-lived fuchsia dreadlocks. I pierced my nose and my lips and I wore makeup that me made me look like a strung out Courtney Love at Mardi Gras. I wore a massive pink fur coat and my behaviour became, at best, attention seeking. This soon morphed into a more polished vintage look in my twenties which was no less mask-like and still a form of control over how people saw me and therefore thought of me. I was visible.
For around 15 years, the first thing people would comment on was the way I looked. Wasn’t I thin? Wasn’t I glamorous? Wasn’t I quirky? Could they touch my hair? They bet it took me forever to get ready! The truth was, it didn’t. It took the same amount of time to put my rollers in and false eyelashes on as it did to artfully clip Hello Kitty hair clips into my hair and smear Max Factor’s Firebrand lipstick around my mouth.
Becoming a teacher in my thirties changed the way I dressed and presented myself to others pretty much over night. I was working with people who literally couldn’t care less whether I wore the right shade or brand of red lipstick and if my dress was repro or original. Although, I have found that nine year olds get really freaked out if you don’t wear mascara. I still wear red lipstick to work most days but it’s generally worn with my hair scraped up in a bun and an old pair of converse. Old habits die hard.
I still continued to compare myself to others in various ways. Why were my class misbehaving? Obviously, I wasn’t managing them properly. Why did they get those test scores? Clearly, I wasn’t doing my job properly. Why did I want to run to the toilets and cry in the middle of lessons? I knew deep down that I was not cut out for this job.
Aside from all the magnificent things about being a teacher, the feeling that you could and should be doing better haunts every waking moment. At least, for me it does. The hours are long and emotionally draining and I was finding that not only was I hardly ever seeing my friends, I was not a present partner and I had no time for my own hobbies and interests. I wouldn’t have minded all these sacrifices if I was an amazing teacher; we all secretly go into this job hoping to be Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society with the patience and wisdom of Atticus Finch.
At Christmas, convinced I was going to quit, I had a thought: What if not being an amazing teacher was not the worst thing that could happen to me? What if just being an OK teacher was, in fact, OK? What if I stopped putting pressure on myself to be ‘special’ at something and accept that not overachieving and standing out is not the same as failing? What if, stay with me, being mediocre was actually the best thing to be?
It’s been hard to undo years of conditioning and I remember someone asking me what happens when I go out without makeup on (because I do all the time, I just fucking love wearing it). ‘I’m invisible,’ was my immediate answer. This was nothing to do with beauty standards for which I have given zero fucks about since childhood, but the way I saw myself and my worth. If I couldn’t be seen, I couldn’t be heard. It has been the same feeling coming to terms with just being OK at being a teacher, being a friend, a partner and a woman. When you are taught to be an overachiever and you can no longer fulfill that role, well, everything else just feels like failure.
We need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to be outstanding at anything and/or everything. I have always lived by the rule that you shouldn’t be friends with anyone, follow anyone on social media or watch anything that makes you feel bad about yourself. I am more than capable of doing that on my own thank you very much. But I’m doing it less and less these days and I’m starting to slowly listen to friends when they tell me I’m good at something. Not amazing, just good.
Good. OK. Alright. Mediocre. They are no longer scary words.